When I recently read about a University of Washington-based startup trying to develop a cheaper and greener LED bulb, I was encouraged by the effort but also reminded of what a scam has been perpetrated so far in the name of “green” lighting.

Top-down environmental policy shifts in the U.S. have created an artificial market for energy-efficient light bulbs known as LEDs and compact fluorescent light bulbs or CFLs. But do they really have a net positive benefit, considering the steeply sharper pricing, iffy product performance, and environmental and consumer risks?

Let’s shine a light on these lights. 

For starters, there’s the way CFLs strike the eye. I prefer a bright, warm-spectrum to the eerie cold glow from CFLs.

Next: household hazards. CFLs contain dangerous mercury, and most folks don’t handle them with the care that is warranted. Will you bother with the EPA-recommended containment routine to dispose of a broken one? Or wrap them up and take them to a recycling center?

LEDs, while touted as safer than CFLs, also contain arsenic, lead, and nickel; a broken LED also requires the cautious clean-up described above.

Worrisome health risks go far beyond accidental breakage. 

CFLs contain a level of ultraviolet radiation that Stonybrook University researchers among others have found to pose serious health risks.

A Spanish University researcher in a study published in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology reported that LED radiation caused “significant damage to human retinal pigment epithelial cells in vitro” and that ongoing exposure  from everyday LED sources such as computers, smart phones, TVs and indoor and outdoor lights  may damage retinas. The risks are said to be greater for today’s children who are exposed to screens frequently from an early age on.

Then come the environmental drawbacks. 

The U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that South Korean university researchers found - in a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in 2013 - that CFLs have a “resource depletion and toxicity potential” anywhere from 3 to 26 times higher than standard incandescent bulbs, and LEDs 2 to 3 times greater, due to having more aluminum, copper, gold, lead, silver and zinc. They concluded that limiting such potentials should be as much a part of U.S. lighting energy policy as conservation and sustainability.

Another concern: Some 95% of the rare-earth minerals found in LEDs are mined in China – contributing to high prices and playing into the country’s notably lax environmental oversight standards.

What about the costs of green light bulbs? 

The claims are that LED bulbs are an economic boon to consumers because they last so long. Er, not so fast. European tests reported on earlier this year revealed one in four LED bulbs failed far short of the claimed lifespan.

As well, Smart Planet reports while LEDs may pencil out in the home, they most certainly do not in the office.

But they're really energy efficient, right? On a pure comparison basis, yes. However as Smart Planet also notes, increased usage of lighting, even the green kind, could easily cancel out energy savings.

What was wrong with incandescent light-bulbs? Well, they use...electricity! Seems there’s a lot of that going around these days. Just because some proportion of the populace uses energy efficient home appliances, that hardly cancels out the proliferation of French-door refrigerators, flat-screen TV's, laptops, panini grills, smoothie machines, enormous home theaters and other consumer luxuries. In an economy dependent on consumerism, nobody wants to live without the amenities we've come to expect.

Unless we all return back to an agrarian, locavore lifestyle growing cotton, making our own clothes, tanning leather, cobbling shoes, growing crops, and going to bed at sunset, the trajectory is set. Small wonder the U.S. Energy Information Administration in its International Energy Outlook 2013, projects 56 percent growth in global energy consumption between 2010 and 2040, fueled by developing nations and a continuing reliance on fossil fuels.

While global leaders struggle with that, the developed world must continue to do what it can and should. Innovation and energy-saving devices are great, and if the U.S. government could just step aside, forward-thinking inventors would eventually design a better light bulb, that consistently performs as touted, saves energy, doesn’t assault my eyes, and doesn’t rely on dangerous materials.

Me, I'll wait until an authentically green, safe and high-performing light bulb is invented. If need be, I'll buck the global energy-gobbling trend and go back to candle-light. I'll get some bee hives, make my own wax-candles, and shake my fist towards Washington D.C. as the last rays of sunlight drag across the western horizon each evening. But I'll be damned if I put CFL or LED light bulbs in my house.


Jeanette Strole Parks is a writer based in Olympia, Wash. She spent eight years writing for the indie-music industry, and is now a homemaker and occasional freelance writer, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the powers that be. She is originally from a socialist country, and has an organic garden, complete with three compost bins.


* Editor’s Note: This is a guest authored piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Washington Business Alliance. 

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